Boston’s buttoned-up South Station doesn’t typically conjure images of fold-up beach chairs, straw hats and rolling Yeti coolers. But on weekend mornings during the summer, that is what you’ll see.
Instead of frenzied passengers running to catch a train to another East Coast city, today's throng of delighted vacationers awaited the CapeFlyer, a weekend passenger train to Cape Cod. It runs during the 15 weekends of summer — up until Labor Day — from Boston to Hyannis with a handful of stops in between.
I recently dragged my two young children on a CapeFlyer adventure. It happened to be the week of history-making heat waves around the world. That Sunday, Boston broke a record.
Tourists like Ken McKeel, 56, from Goldsboro, North Carolina, had the same idea. He was there with his family, looking to beat the heat and see the Cape's world-renowned beaches. The reason they took the train: cost.
On Sundays, you can get a same-day, round-trip ticket for half price, or $20.
My kids have grown up going to Cape beaches, and never turn down a chance to play in the Atlantic or eat at one of the many seafood shacks. Plus, getting out of metro Boston’s hot and steamy atmosphere wasn’t a hard sell, despite the early departure time of 7:45 a.m. I also promised them ice cream, one of the Cape Cod food groups.
When we arrived at South Station terminal, situated smack in downtown Boston, the scene was akin to an airport in Cancun or any other tropical beach destination: folks eagerly awaiting sun, surf or maybe a frozen cocktail with a view.
Taking a train to Cape Cod makes sense. If you’ve ever gone there by car on a summer weekend, you know the biggest drawback is traffic.
The only two ways to drive to the hook-shaped peninsula are the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. Both built in the 1930s, the bridges are not meant to accommodate today’s level of traffic. So, the wait to cross one can take hours.
The atmosphere on board the CapeFlyer is as relaxed as a beach vacation. There’s a bar car serving wine, beer and mixed drinks, and plenty of riders were sipping a rose or a beer while admiring the scenery.
"I would compare the CapeFlyer to the ferries, in that the minute you step on any of them, you’re on vacation," said Kim Foley MacKinnon, a Boston-based travel writer who wrote the book "100 Things to Do on Cape Cod and the Islands Before You Die."
"It’s the first step to relaxation," she said. "That’s the vibe."
Patrons have under three hours to enjoy their trip. But the CapeFlyer offers one ride to the Cape and one ride out each day. If you miss it, you’ll be stuck looking for another way to get home.
Once the train crosses into Cape Cod, by way of the Railroad Bridge, it's a slower trip. The train can run only about 30 mph because of the Cape’s older rail infrastructure, according to Thomas Cahir, administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, which runs the train together with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
This is far from a complaint, though. It just means there's more time to sit back and enjoy the trip.
Before the pandemic, about 15,000 passengers took the CapeFlyer, Cahir said. Ridership has been slow to come back but is steadily growing. In 2021, some 6,000 passengers took the train. This year, Cahir expects to exceed that number.
Riders arrive in Hyannis, the commercial hub of the Cape. It’s home to the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum and the place to catch a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. There are whale watching tours, deep sea fishing excursions, and boat tours that offer a view of the famous Kennedy Compound, where JFK launched his 1960 Presidential campaign. If Hyannis isn’t your speed, you can take a bus to the other 14 beach towns. They're all relatively close and worth a visit.
"It’s hard to miss on the Cape because there are so many choices, and each town has its own flavor," said Jeffrey Heth, who publishes the "Guidebook of Cape Cod" along with his wife, Mary.
Jack Boland, 23, and Niall McMahon, 22, both from Dublin, Ireland, were taking the CapeFlyer as part of a post-college trip across America.
They were drawn to the Cape for its beaches, fishing culture and JFK history. They stayed the weekend in Hyannis.
"We didn’t have a car so we made it work," Boland said.
The CapeFlyer is certainly cheaper than renting a car, and the eco-friendly aspect of public transportation also appeals to younger travelers.
Jordan Cornwell, 27, was visiting from Orlando, Florida. She took the Friday night CapeFlyer with two friends. They stayed the weekend before heading back to Boston on the train Sunday evening.
On the trip down, Cornwell and her friends saw two little boys catch a fish off the train platform at one of the stops.
"The whole train was clapping," Cornwell said. "There were some really friendly people on the train and everyone was chatting."
The CapeFlyer "came in during sunset and that was really pretty," she said.
When asked if she’d ride it again: "Most definitely."